Monday, July 19, 2010
Who's Afraid of Liberty?: The American Left and Its Fear of Talking About Freedom
It seems that the Democratic Party and the American left in general has a problem with talking about "liberty" and "freedom." Sometimes words like "choice" and "rights" are applied euphemistically to this end, but framing issues from the perspective of individuals struggling for self-determination in their lives has been a theme entirely given over to the right for quite a while now. Issues from reproductive rights to LGBT issues to immigration reform are framed almost solely in terms of "justice" or "equality" when they should all be at least partially framed in terms of "freedom." Meanwhile, those who are unafraid to talk about "liberty" (such as libertarians and a number of conservatives) win the hearts and minds of Americans who value personal freedom, even if the right wing conception of liberty is superficial at best. In order to win over those voters who value the rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit, the left is going to have to start talking about liberty once again.
The reasons for the left's liberty deficit seems to be two fold. First of all, the concept of personal freedom is often used as a way for those with power and money to feel little or no guilt about riding roughshod over those without it. Business owners may feel that they are at liberty to treat their employees however they choose and that those employees are then at liberty to work elsewhere if they do not like it. Parents may feel that they are at liberty to raise their children as they see fit even if said children are denied opportunities to grow and learn that would allow them to live normal lives and to benefit as individuals. Someone may feel that he or she has the liberty to cease paying taxes even though by doing so, they would be denying all members of their society the ability to use services that are vital to their well-being. And so on and so forth. The reason that people on the left rightly find these hypothetical claims so unconvincing is that the liberty given up by the business owner, parent, and taxpayer in these scenarios is much less than the liberty gained by the worker, child, and ideally the consumer of government services. A good non-hypothetical example of this is the American with Disabilities Act. While this forces individual business owners to give up a little bit of liberty by requiring them to make their places of business more accessible for the handicapped, the liberty that disabled individuals acquire by being able to travel more freely in a world accessible to them outweighs any collective inconveniences to America's business owners. Sure, all of these issues are issues of "equality" and "justice" but they are also issues about "liberty," just a more complicated sort of liberty than that promoted by those on the right.
LGBT rights seems to me to be a particularly strange issue to frame in terms of "justice" and "equality" as opposed to "liberty," seeing as for the most part the demands of LGBT people infringe very little, if any, on the rights of others. Perhaps this is just part of a pattern on the left of framing issues in terms of the former and not the latter and it is being repeated even in those cases where it make comparably little sense. Instead of riling up Americans against the savage injustice of putting individual rights to a popular vote and putting the government in charge of who can and cannot make what commitments to one another, the left has meekly spewed mealy mouthed platitudes about "equality."
However, there is more at work in the left's (and especially the Democratic Party's) fear of talking about freedom than just how the term is often inappropriately used by those on the right as an excuse to ignore social justice and personal liberty for some of those most marginalized by society. It also has to do with the establishment left's own role in perpetuating gross violations of individual rights. The war on drugs, while not a wholly left wing enterprise, has been and continues to be at least a partial one. And the American left has never been completely comfortable with the notion of Americans owning firearms for self-defense. Many violations of individual rights and ultimately of people's freedom have their roots on the left. By embracing terms like "liberty" the American left will have to come to terms with its own continuing betrayal of this ideal.
However, in the final estimation of things the American left and the Democratic Party are going to have to learn how to talk about freedom. From the Declaration of Independence to the "Don't Tread on Me" flag to rock and roll to jazz, America's best traditions have had at their heart an appeal to the American love of freedom. Americans are used to framing issues in terms of freedom and will respond to whatever political party or movement is best able to appeal to this basic human and very American desire. As long as American liberals have trouble articulating what freedom means to them they can expect to lose elections and ultimately to lose ground in the court of public opinion.